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Winter Fun By William Osborn Stoddard Characters: 14359

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The winter days went swiftly on, with constant repetitions of chess and fireside comfort in evenings, and snowballing, skating, sleigh-rides, and other fun whenever the circumstances permitted. There were frequent and long letters from the South, and other and shorter letters from the city. A pretty steady comparison of climates could be made from time to time, and there was no small interest in that. Susie and Port became as well known in Benton Village as if they had been residents, and at least a dozen of the young ladies they knew had learned to skate. Old Miss Turner, the dressmaker, tried it; but she told her friends that she tore her dress and spoiled her bonnet for nothing, and she wouldn't bump the back of her head in that way any more.

"Aunt Sarah!" suddenly exclaimed Susie one afternoon, when she had just finished reading a letter from Florida, "mother says she is as well as ever, and that, now spring is coming"-

"Spring! Why, it's hardly beyond the end of February yet. The winter'll hold on till April, and maybe till nigh the end of it."

"Well, away down there they've had real warm weather."

"Now, Susie, you sit right down and write to her that the snow's three feet deep on a level, and she mustn't dream of running the risk of her health in coming North till May."

"Spring'll come earlier in the city than it will up here, aunt Sarah. You can't think how I want to see her."

Port was listening, and he drew a long breath; but he said nothing, and looked very hard out of the window at the endless reaches of snow. They were there, but the long cold "snap" was unmistakably over. It was after supper, that very evening, that Deacon Farnham remarked to his wife,-

"Sarah, the sun's been pretty warm on the trees, and the sap'll be running. I must be getting ready. I mean to have the biggest kind of a sugaring this year."

"I'm glad of it, Joshua. It'll be something for the young folks too. I'm half afraid Susie's beginning to be homesick."

"Nonsense," said aunt Judith; "but of course she wants to see her mother. She and Port are doin' something or other all the while. It's been just one jump with 'em, and they've had a good time. They read a good deal, too; and Port shot two more rabbits only yesterday, and carried 'em over to Mrs. Stebbins."

The city cousins had indeed had a good time; but they did not tell anybody how glad they were to see the sun climbing higher, and to feel sure that spring was nearer.

The increasing sun-power was settling and packing the drifts; and the bitter nights were all that witnessed, for about a week, to the remaining strength of the winter. The sap began to run, as the deacon said it would, and he was fully ready for it. His sugar harvest was to be gathered among the maple-trees on the south-lying slope, near the spot where he had done most of his chopping. There were trees there of the right sort, in great plenty,-great towering old fellows that could well afford to lose a little sap.

"Judith," said Mrs. Farnham, while her husband was at the barn loading his wood-sleigh with the things he would need at the sugar-bush, "we must have the sewing society meet at our house right in sugaring-time."

"It'll be the very thing to do, and I'm glad you thought of it. Only it'll take a good deal of sugar to sweeten some of 'em."

There was more to be said; but Port and Susie had no share in the discussion, for they hurried out to the sleigh, and were quickly on their way to the woods. They had already learned that a hundred tall maples, more or less, with holes bored into their sides, and with wooden "spiles" driven into the holes, were thereby transformed into a "bush."

The deacon made the boys leave their guns at home, as he had work for them to do; but Vosh joined them when they passed his house, and he carried his double-barrel on his shoulder. He was laughed at a little, but he said there was no telling when he might find a use for it.

It was a bright and sunny day, but there had been no real thaw as yet. The crust had settled with the snow, and was still firm enough for the workers to walk from tree to tree.

The first business was to tap as many as the deacon thought he could attend to; and the boys had enough to do in carrying from the sleigh the wooden troughs, and placing them where they would catch the steady drip, drip, from the sap-spiles.

"They'll fill pretty fast," said the deacon. "We've got some evening collecting before us, or I'm mistaken. We must have some kettles up as soon as we can."

He and Vosh and the hired man went right at it, and the deacon declared that he would have two more hands from the village the next day. Susie and Pen went with them, and stood watching the process.

"It's easy enough," said Pen, as she saw them struggling with one of the great iron kettles.

Two strong forked stakes were driven down in convenient places, at about eight feet apart. A stout pole was laid across each pair of stakes, resting in the forks. A kettle was swung upon each cross-pole in due season, but only three had been brought that morning. Then all was ready for building a fire under the kettle, and beginning to make sugar.

"Won't the snow melt under it?" asked Susie. "Won't it put out the fire?"

"You'll see," said Vosh. "Of course the snow melts on top, and sinks, and we keep pitching on bark and stuff, and the ashes are there. The water runs off through the snow, and all the stuff gets packed hard, and'll bear as much fire as you can build on it. It makes a cake, and freezes nights, and those cakes'll be the last things around here that melt in spring."

He was aching to get a bucket of sap into that first kettle, and a fire under it, so he could show her how it worked; but the other kettles had to be set up first. It was well that there should be enough of them to take the sap as it came, so that nobody need be tempted to throw cold sap into boiling sirup at the wrong time. A barrel was brought up afterwards, to hold any surplus that a kettle was not ready for.

While the workers at the sugar-bush were pushing forward their preparations, Susie and Port were learning a great deal about maple-sugar processes. They could not help remembering all they knew about other kinds of sugar. At the same time there was much activity at the farmhouse. Aunt Judith put on her things, as soon as she could spare the time for it, and went over to consult with Mrs. Stebbins. Then they both came back to see Mrs. Farnham; and all three wrapped up, and made the quickest kind of a walk to the village. They made several short calls separately, and, when they came together again, Mrs. Stebbins announced the result triumphantly,-

"We've set the ball a-rollin'. Elder Evans'll give it out in meeting this evening. All the rest of 'em'll send word, and he'll give it out again on Sunday. If we don't have your house full next Tuesday, I'm all out in my count."

Sugar-making in a large "bush" is not a business to be finished up in a day or two. The weather grew better and better for it, and Deacon Farnham's extra "hands" were kept at it most industriously. Tuesday came,

and Mrs. Stebbins was not at all out in her count. The house began to look lively even before noon. Squire King and his wife came just after dinner, and their sleigh could not have held one more passenger. It went right back for some more. It was curious, too, considering that everybody knew all about sugaring. Old or young, hardly any of them were contented until they had paid a visit to the "bush," and drunk some sap. Some of the younger people seemed very much inclined to stay there.

"There won't be any great amount of sewing done for the poor heathen," remarked one good old lady, with a lump of maple-sugar in one hand, and a kruller in the other. "What's more, all their appetites'll be spiled, and they won't enjoy eatin' any thing."

Some afterwards seemed really to have suffered that injury, but not the majority, by any means. The later arrivals, especially, came hungry. All the latter part of that afternoon seemed to be one pretty steady-going dinner or supper. The ladies of the society poured right out into the kitchen to help aunt Judith, till she begged that no more should come at once than could stand around the stove.

It was well that there should be a sugar-bush, or some sort of excitement, to keep a part of that gathering out of doors. The house was full enough at all times; and before sunset the knots of merry people scattered around among the maple-trees and kettles discovered why Vosh Stebbins had persisted in carrying his gun out there every day since the work began.

Vosh had dreamed of such a thing, and had been almost half afraid of it; but he had hoped in his heart that it might come, and the peaceful course of events had disappointed him. He was getting ready to start for the house that day, gun and all, when he heard somebody scream, away up near the farthest clump of sugar-trees,-

"Bear, bear, bear! There's a bear drinking sap!"

Ever so many voices were raised at once to announce to everybody the arrival of that ferocious wild animal, recently waked from his winter's nap. They told of the dreadful thing he was doing, and suggested other dreadful things that he might do. He might eat up the society.

"They generally come at night," said the deacon calmly, "but they are very apt to visit a sugar-bush. They're fond of sap."

"Where's Susie? Where's Pen?" exclaimed Vosh. Then he remembered that they and a whole party of village girls were up there near those very trees, and he ran as if his life depended on it.

"Steady, Vosh. Not so fast. I'm a-coming."

There was the deacon panting behind him, axe in hand; and behind him was the hired man with his axe, and away behind him were three or four sturdy farmers following with no better weapons than sled-stakes.

Port and Corry were with the girls, and it had been a wonder how quickly the last girl and boy to be seen had gotten behind a tree. They were all now peering out for a look at the bear, and Penelope declared of him,-

"He's the largest bear in the world. He's awful!"

Not all of them were where they could see him, and he was making no effort at all to see them, but his offence was that he had come. No doubt but he had been a little scared at first, when the girls began to scream; but he was hungry and thirsty, and he was fond of sap, and he took courage. There were all those troughs ready for him, and he could not think of going away without a good drink.

Besides, the bear could not see that any of those young ladies seemed disposed to come any nearer, and he had not been introduced to one of them. So he overcame any bashfulness, and put his nose into another sap-trough, and it was empty in a twinkling. He served another in the same way, and was going ahead quite contentedly, nearer and nearer the girls that were afraid to run. At least half a dozen were braver, and ran remarkably well towards the kettles. Port and Corry, behind their trees, were longing for all sorts of weapons, when they saw something well worth seeing.

The bear stood still suddenly; for a dark-eyed, plucky-looking boy, with something in his hands, stood right in the way.

"What are you loaded with, Vosh?" shouted the deacon. "Nothing but buckshot? It's risky."

"Buckshot, and two slugs in each barrel."

"That's better. He's turned a little. Take him in the shoulder."

"Bang, bang!" was the reply made by the gun. It was close work, and not many of the leaden missiles wandered from their broad black target.

The bear was mortally wounded, but he instantly gathered his remaining strength for a charge. The furiously angry growl he gave sent a thrill and chill through all the bones of the scattered spectators.

Right past Vosh at that moment sprang the deacon; and he met the bear halfway, like the brave old borderer that he was. He was a master-hand with an axe, and its keen edge fell with a thud squarely between the eyes of the ferocious animal. It sank in as if the bear's head had been the side of a hickory, and there was no need of any second blow.

The bear was dead; and all the sugar makers and eaters could cluster around and make remarks upon him, and praise Vosh Stebbins and the deacon.

"Pen!" exclaimed Susie, "what will his mother say of him now?"

"Why, they'll skin him, and it'll make the beautifullest kind of a buffalo-robe."

Pen was thinking of the bear only; and Vosh had at once reloaded and shouldered his gun, and walked away. He was ready for another bear, but felt pretty sure that none would come. Port and Corry gave up going to the house for guns and coming back again, and all the young ladies seemed to think it must be near supper-time. They carried the news to Mrs. Stebbins, and it was all but provoking that she should take it very much as a matter of course. If any bear came to be killed, it was as natural as life that her boy should kill him. He was a young fellow from whom uncommon things were to be commonly expected.

After the adventure with the bear, the sewing society was a greater success than before. It went right on until late into the evening, but the success of it was not in the sewing that was done. The only heathen for whom much was accomplished was probably the bear himself.

Susie Hudson said to her brother at last, "I don't care, Port, it beats a city party all to pieces. There's ever so much more real enjoyment. I want to live in the country."

"Oh, well, I like it in winter. It's well enough. You've been out here in summer too."

"It's twice as good then."

"No, Susie, it can't be. It must be all hard work in summer. But think of the fun we've had!"

She did; and late in the evening Vosh Stebbins stepped up to her, and whispered,-

"May I see you home? The cutter's waiting at the door. All the rest are getting ready to start."

"I've got to say good-by to them all, I suppose."

"Go round and say it now. I don't want to sleigh-ride anybody else. They've all got company."

That was the reason why, a little afterwards, Vosh Stebbins's mother could not find him. He and Susie were jingling over the snow behind the sorrel colt, and it was a long way home before they returned to the house.

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